There is a bit of wisdom that I first heard from Maya Angelou that has come to be very useful to me. It has also helped me to understand one of the strategic mistakes leaders often make. Dr. Angelou said simply, “When people show you who they are, believe them.”
What she was trying to correct was a very human tendency we all have. It is the tendency to ignore what people reveal about themselves through their words and deeds, to instead lean to a more hopeful view. In other words, we ignore reality and live in light of distortions we’ve fashioned in our minds.
Again, this is a completely human failing but it is also dangerous. A friend who is a policeman often marvels aloud at the many people who die because they couldn’t see the threat posed by someone close to them. He means, for example, the wife whose husband beats her constantly, but who keeps telling her family and the police that “He’s actually a good man down deep. He doesn’t mean to do it.” Then, one day, she is dead. Why? She couldn’t bring herself to believe what her husband was telling her with his fists. She lived in false hope and it cost her everything.
Another example is the family with a drug-addicted son. The boy steals from his parents, wrecks cars, abuses his siblings and, in time, even waves a knife in front of his mother while shouting, “I’ll kill you! I will!” But Johnny is a good boy. He’s just a troubled teenager. We’ll get through this. Then, one night, Johnny kills his entire family.
Now, I’ll admit that these are extreme examples of Dr. Angelou’s principle. Yet at a lesser level, we all tend to do this. Leaders are often the worst violators. We keep employees we ought to let go because we don’t listen to what their conduct tells us. We hire people we ought not because we lean to intuition rather than the facts of their lives. We agree to partnerships and deals that cannot work because our pride tells us that we can create success where others can’t.
Leaders routinely lean to their inner sense of things—and they should. This is part of the leadership gift. Yet we should not allow the inner voice of our gifts to keep us from the facts. A leader’s inner voice should help interpret the facts, understand them, and then act upon them. Ignoring the obvious truth of a person or situation is to live in fantasy, and fantasy-oriented leaders produce failure and poverty.
I’m grateful for Dr. Angelou’s simple lesson. I’ll admit, though, that I tend to think of it more in terms the ancients used: “You’ll know them by their fruit.”
Whatever our hopes for people, whatever good we see “deep down,” we have to conduct ourselves according to what their fruit tells us, meaning by what they produce in their lives. The myriad mistakes this truth will prevent—both in our personal lives and as leaders—will be worth the effort many times over.
So you know where this leads. Look at your life. Take inventory. Make sure you are “believing” the people around you. Look at your leadership. Rigorously examine the truth of every person and situation. Insist upon the same from your team. Examine the fruit. Make wise decisions accordingly.
In short, “get real.” You’ll be a better leader if you do.